Much has been written over the past decade about the promise of a transformed US-India strategic relationship, both globally and in Asia. From safeguarding the global commons and promoting the spread of democratic values, to preventing the domination of Asia by a single power, this partnership of ‘natural’ allies has been deemed indispensable for stability and prosperity in the 21st century.
There has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been much less written about the limits to such cooperation. Yet with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton having passed through New Delhi last week following the second round of the annual US-India Strategic Dialogue—one of only a half-dozen such dialogues that the United States has—these limits appear to be kicking in, and forcefully.
In late April, despite personal lobbying by US President Barack Obama, New Delhi eliminated the top two US contenders from its shortlist of suppliers for the India Air Force’s fourth generation of advanced combat aircraft. With New Delhi’s preliminary design contract for co-development of a fifth-generation fighter recently signed with Moscow, the window for US-India collaboration here appears to have closed. In the same month, New Delhi also signalled its disinclination to upgrade the strategic dialogue to a joint 2+2 (foreign + defence ministers) format, as the United States has with Tokyo, in turn leading to postponement of the Strategic Dialogue. Attempts in May to revive the issue were met with firm objections, leaving the format stillborn.
Near-term disappointments aside, though, it’s the underlying differences in New Delhi’s strategic goals that have been the key obstacle to deepening the US-India defence relationship.
When bilateral defence cooperation was first envisioned in the early- to mid-2000s, a robust maritime component was viewed as the crown jewel in the burgeoning US-India strategic partnership. The US hope—if not expectation—was two-fold:
First, New Delhi would be Washington’s key security partner in the Indian Ocean region (IOR), increasingly joining with the US military in use of force planning to address regional contingencies. In other words, India would be the Japan of the IOR, just without the Japanese Constitution’s war renouncing Article 9. The 2005 bilateral Framework Defense Agreement lent credence to this belief, envisaging Indian collaboration in ‘multinational operations…of common interest’ ranging from humanitarian and disaster relief activities to Proliferation Security Initiative-style interdictions and perhaps even ‘coalition of the willing’ interventions that lacked an explicit UN mandate.
Second, as such collaboration was extended to ‘out-of-area’ operations, ranging from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, New Delhi was expected to participate in the soft maritime ‘containment’ of China. India’s dispatch of a temporary liaison officer to US Pacific Command headquarters in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, its willingness to participate in trilateral naval exercises in the East China Sea and its hosting of wide-ranging multinational exercises in critical Indian Ocean waterways that serve as approaches to the Malacca Straits lent considerable weight to this belief.
On both counts, expectations weren’t borne out. A civil nuclear deal and endorsement of India’s Security Council aspirations notwithstanding, New Delhi appears unwilling to confront Beijing in any security format other than one strictly bilateral (Sino-Indian), nor countenance the degree of ‘jointness’ or interoperability in bilateral defence planning preferred by Washington. Indeed, at the very point defence interoperability assumes the trappings of quasi-informal military alignment, New Delhi tends to shrink back.
Almost a decade after its first broaching by Washington, New Delhi has yet to post a mid-level officer on a permanent basis to Pacific Command. Recent statements by India’s Ministry of Defence that it doesn’t seek such a relationship with US combatant commands, as well as its disallowing of all unsupervised contact between armed forces officials and foreign defence delegations, suggests a shrinking space for exchange of ideas at the military-to-military level with PACOM.
Despite being afforded an exceptional window on the operation of the US military’s CENTRIX battle group networking system during Malabar series exercises, New Delhi remains averse to signing a Memorandum of Agreement that would facilitate tactical communications system interoperability. Driven as much by concerns over intrusiveness, New Delhi has chosen to depend instead on Russia’s military-grade satellite navigational system, which is as yet only semi-operational. The fact that top-dollar purchases of US military transport and reconnaissance aircraft have had to be kitted with down-rated avionics suites hasn’t, it seems, changed New Delhi’s thinking.
Leery that navy-to-navy fuel transfer arrangements, as practised during the US-India Malabar series exercises, might set a precedent for reciprocal fuel-sharing requests during peacetime, or in the South China Sea and beyond, New Delhi has also stepped back from initialling a mutual Logistics Support Agreement.
Meanwhile, apprehensive that involvement of US carrier battle groups in the Malabar exercises, and the attendant shore leave for hundreds of US servicemen on Indian soil, might create demands for immunity protections, the exercises have been scaled down. And, following a bluntly-worded demarche by Beijing in 2007 in the wake of five-party war games hosted in the Bay of Bengal, the multinational component of these exercises has been shifted ‘out of area’ altogether—all ensuing Malabar exercises in the IOR have since been strictly US-India affairs.
Far from suggesting a willingness to extend Indian maritime security obligations beyond the IOR, as some have inferred the trilateral Malabar exercises in the East China Sea to be, it in fact reveals an Indian disinclination to be tied to a US and allied maritime strategy in its core Indian Ocean zone of interest. Practical arms-length collaboration, as opposed to integration, appears to be the ceiling to such bilateral defence cooperation.
Although it would be easy to blame New Delhi’s reluctance to pursue bilateral defence interoperability solely on a simple attachment to strategic autonomy, there’s actually something deeper at work. As outlined in 2007 by India’s then-foreign minister at the peak of the US-Indian honeymoon, increased cooperation with each of the great global power centres had—for the first time in India’s independent history—created an upward spiral of improving relations with each of the other powers. The essence of India’s diplomatic strategy was to ensure that no set of great power bilateral relationships was advanced to the detriment of another.
Conversely, to the extent that US-India defence ties were perceived in Beijing and Moscow as a precursor to an informal military and political alignment, disenchantment in these capitals had the potential to reverse this virtuous cycle of relationships and unhinge a key element of New Delhi’s diplomatic strategy. Paradoxical as it might seem, Beijing (the presumptive target of such ties) and Moscow (the prospective loser from a procurement relationship) limit the scope of India’s defence cooperation with the United States.
Clearly, stability in Asia remains key to Indian national interests, and New Delhi is keen to share assessments with the United States and Japan. The recently announced US-India-Japan senior officials-level dialogue mechanism, for example, provides useful venues in this regard—both to employ diplomatic pushback to check Chinese overreach, as well as to instil a more nuanced understanding of possible strategic cooperation in Asia.
But, more than anything, India would do well to broaden the conversation beyond defence, to cover things like trade and financial and economic integration. With this in mind, the Obama administration’s reported recent decision to invite India to be an observer at November’s APEC summit in Hawaii is commendable.
An equivalent effort needs to be brought to bear on New Delhi to strike down barriers within its trade, manufacturing, land use, labour, and industrial bankruptcy regime, so that a trade format involving Japanese design, Indian light manufacturing and US final goods consumption demand can reinforce ties between the three nations.
Realizing the potential of US-India (and Japan) civil nuclear cooperation, currently stalled at the political hurdle of liability laws, enrichment and reprocessing technologies – and tackling the not insignificant obstacle of a meandering New Delhi-Tokyo civil nuclear cooperation negotiation – wouldn’t hurt ties either.
an edited version of an article that originally appeared at CSIS Pacnet.